A group of state legislators from the Capital Region want the Legislature to have final approval over prison closures following this summer’s announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration that the Mount McGregor prison would shut down in the summer of 2014.
Legislation was introduced recently that would require the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to present an argument for closing a prison to the Legislature, which would then vote on the proposed closure. Under the current system, which was approved by the Legislature as part of the 2005 state budget, the power to close prisons rests solely with the department, as long as it gives one year’s notice.
Despite the Legislature’s current weak hand, state Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said the Senate and Assembly can still weigh in during the budget process.
“We’ll see what we can do,” he said.
In July, DOCCS announced plans to close four prisons next summer, including McGregor, a medium-security facility that employs about 320 people and housed about 455 inmates at the time of the announcement. The closures were attributed to a shrinking prison population, according to the department, which also touted the fact the closures would save more than $30 million annually and all the impacted employees would be offered jobs within the state.
If the proposed legislation — whose sponsors include assemblymen Tony Jordan, R-Jackson, and James Tedisco, R-Glenville, and state Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon — were enacted, the Legislature would have a much stronger position. To garner support for the proposal, Jordan, Tedisco, Marchione and state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, met Wednesday morning in Wilton with members of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, which represents about 200 guards at McGregor.
Tedisco said the latest round of prison closures was devoid of any legislative input.
“If you’re going to develop a plan … let us be involved with it,” he said. “Send the plan to us; we can work with you.”
Jordan noted closing McGregor didn’t make sense considering its value as an infirmary that treats inmates from throughout the North Country.
DOCCS spokesman Thomas W. Mailey was critical of Wednesday’s gathering and the proposed legislation.
“The organizers of [Wednesday’s] event either have no knowledge of current law or are intentionally ignoring key facts in order to score cheap political points.”
“New York’s crime rate continues to decline, the inmate population continues to shrink and taxpayers cannot afford to continue to pay for empty prison beds,” he added. “This right-sizing of New York’s prison system reflects this reality, while with a goal of avoiding layoffs, by assisting each employee in transferring into positions at other facilities that are geographically as close as possible to their current work locations.”
Farley acknowledged right-sizing is important and said the state does have a smaller prison population than in the past, but countered that the state’s prison population is cyclical in nature, suggesting it could rise in the near future. If it increases, he said, the likelihood is the state wouldn’t have the necessary facilities and prisons would become overcrowded, which would create unsafe conditions for prison guards.
The prison closure is also opposed by the Civil Service Employees Association, which has about 100 members who work at McGregor in civilian roles.